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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Charles Barkley’s ‘Retirement’ Could Be Last-Ditch Power Play

  • Sir Charles sends a message that he and TNT are a package deal.
  • If TNT does indeed lose the NBA, next year’s ‘Inside the NBA’ will be must-see TV.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Charles Barkley has always proved himself to be a master negotiator. His recent “retirement” announcement could be a last-ditch power play to keep TNT Sports in the game with the NBA. If that doesn’t work, Barkley has positioned himself to become the most sought-after, highest-paid sports TV free agent of all time.

Think about it. The tributes have been pouring in for Sir Charles since he said Friday night that will retire from TV after the 2024–25 NBA season. The Hall of Famer made it clear he didn’t want to work anywhere except TNT, where his iconic Inside the NBA is the gold standard for studio shows.

“There’s been a lot of noise around our network the last few months. And I just want to say, I’ve talked to all the other networks, but I ain’t going nowhere other than TNT,” said an emotional Barkley. “But, I have made the decision myself, no matter what happens, next year is going to be my last year on television. And I just want to say thank you to my NBA family; you guys have been great to me. My heart is full with joy and gratitude. But I’m gonna pass the baton at the end of next year.”

One of the reasons he’s the best sports analyst since John Madden is he wears his heart on his sleeve. The 61-year-old legend is clearly fed up with reports warning TNT is about to lose its 40-year relationship in favor of incumbent ESPN and the invading NBC Sports and Amazon Prime Video. 

But color me skeptical. Barkley has been threatening to retire for 30 years. And he always returns to the court, or the Inside the NBA studio with a bigger, juicer contract. Sports Media Watch chronicled nine separate times he talked about retiring from the NBA and TNT between 1993 and 2022. In ’18, he told The Athletic he planned to retire from TV at age 60. Instead, he publicly flirted with the deep-pocketed LIV Golf. That led to a new 10-year deal with TNT that will pay him well in excess of $100 million, according to the New York Post. Barkley changes his mind often. Nobody is better at negotiating through the press, as The Ringer recently detailed.

With TNT’s NBA relationship hanging by a thread, maybe Barkley is applying the only pressure he can to keep his network in business with The Association. After talking with ESPN, NBC, and Prime, Barkley said the only network he wants to work for is TNT. The message: Barkley and TNT are a package deal. If NBA wants to keep the best analyst and best studio show on TV, then they should carve out a smaller, cheaper, fourth package that will keep TNT in the hoops game. Or allow it to “match” offers from third-party bidders NBC and Prime.

A cryptic statement issued by TNT about Barkley’s retirement this weekend hinted at more to come with their star analyst and the NBA. “Charles is a Hall of Famer and broadcasting icon who is and will always be a beloved member of the TNT Sports family. We’re looking forward to another fantastic NBA on TNT season and further discussion of our future plans with him.”

I don’t think Barkley’s loyal to his new bosses at TNT parent Warner Bros. Discovery, whom he ripped as “clowns” and “fools” for bungling the NBA renewal talks. But he is fiercely loyal to his Inside the NBA castmates and the hundreds of behind-the-scenes colleagues he’s worked with at TNT for more than 20 years.  

“Morale sucks, plain and simple,” Barkley recently told Dan Patrick. “I just feel so bad for the people I work with, Dan. These people have families. I just really feel bad for them right now. These people I work with? They’ve screwed this thing up clearly. We have zero idea what’s going to happen.”  

Before his latest retirement announcement, Barkley said he was open to a job change, even revealing he insisted on an out clause in his TNT contract if the network lost the NBA. He joked about creating a LinkedIn page. He also held out the possibility of hiring Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson for his own production company, then licensing Inside the NBA to another media company.

The bottom line: Barkley has plenty of options. Yes, he would be devastated if TNT loses the NBA. But that happens in the sports media business. The late great John Madden thought he would work for CBS Sports his entire TV career. But when CBS lost NFL rights, Madden ended up working for Fox, ABC, and NBC.

If TNT loses the NBA, I could see Barkley taking a long vacation, then returning to the airwaves via a big money deal with ESPN, NBC, or Prime that could approach $20 million per year. At least, he’d be secure in the knowledge he did everything he could to save the jobs of hundreds of colleagues at TNT.

One source told “Tuned In” that he believes Barkley issued his latest retirement warning to make the media stop pestering him about where he’s going next. The great thing about Barkley is everybody expects him to change on a dime—and say outrageous things. That’s just Charles being Charles. Either way, Barkley’s last hurrah on Inside the NBA will be must-see TV next season. If you think he was outspoken before, wait until next year.

My take: Barkley, as always, is masterfully playing his WBD bosses, the media, and potential suitors like ESPN. As Denzel Washington said in Training Day: “This s***’s chess, it ain’t checkers.”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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